Lyrical Antiquities

Archaeologist Ronny Reich translates one of Nathan Alterman’s Hebrew poems

Lyrical Antiquities

Ronny Reich

We don’t often think of other aspects of archaeologists’ lives—when they’re not in the field or the lab or writing an excavation report, preliminary or final. Oh, of course, they have families, love their parents, argue with their spouse, yell at their children and get sick sometimes. But they also have interests not strictly archaeological. Such is the case with Ronny Reich, excavator of the City of David.

Ronny Reich loves poetry—particularly German and Hebrew poetry. He especially enjoys translating it. He recently sent BAR editor Hershel Shanks a little piece that he entitled “Lyrical Antiquities,” a kind of introduction to his translation of a Hebrew poem by the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman. It gives us a different way of approaching archaeology, not as a scholar, a historian, or a scientist, but as a poet.

Ancient sites and ancient objects find their way, occasionally, into poetry, including many Hebrew poems. They may transmit a most concrete sense of the passing of time.

Lyrical Antiquities

Nathan Alterman

Several poets wrote poems inspired by ancient statues, particularly of the classical world. The renowned Israeli poet Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) found inspiration for several Hebrew poems in archaeological discoveries made in Israel. The first excavation conducted in the young state of Israel was carried out in 1948 by Professor Benjamin Mazar at Tell Qasila in Tel Aviv, Alterman’s hometown.

Alterman’s poem “The New City” describes some of Mazar’s discoveries, and how they allude to modern Tel Aviv. When the Bar-Kokhba letters were discovered by Yigael Yadin, Alterman wrote “The Pottery Jars,” in which these jars allow us to “correspond” with our forefathers.

Another of Nathan Alterman’s archaeological Hebrew poems is titled “The Potter.” It describes the making of a pot in ancient times and the significance of the fact that eventually its sherds will be found scattered on an ancient mound.


To read Ronny Reich’s translation of Nathan Alterman’s Hebrew poem, “The Potter,” see Ronny Reich, First Person, “Antiquities in Poems,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

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